Unexpected Faith: Terrence Malick and the “Love that loves us”

American philosopher-turned-filmmaker Terrence Malick does not make crowd-pleasers. He does not even feel any great compulsion to actually make films, although he has made more films in the last decade than he did for the first 30 years of his career. A little like Marilynne Robinson’s novels, Malick’s films emerge from some slow, meditative, beauty-processor that cannot be rushed yet almost always satisfies. Sometimes it produces a few masterpieces in quick succession; sometimes it does nothing for a decade. Yet everything that he produces is touched with transcendence and immanence all at once.

Also like Robinson, Malick’s work is generally transfigured by a deeply Christian sensibility. One journalist, Damon Linker, began his review of Malick’s 2016 film Knight of Cups with the question, “What if Christianity is right after all?” Malick’s 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life blended scenes of cosmic creation with reflections on “the way of law” and the “way of grace”. Belief and unbelief are everywhere in his work, and sometimes the absence of God is the most tangible sign of His reality.

This is perhaps best expressed in the follow-up to The Tree of Life, 2013’s To the Wonder. Malick’s third-shortest film at just under 2 hours, To the Wonder is a slow, sun-dazzled and often heartbreaking meditation on love, hate, rejection and forgiveness, featuring the often unexceptional Ben Affleck in a role so understated that few others could do it so well, with Affleck using muted facial expression the way Hemingway uses silence. Yet the fact that Affleck is in the film is almost irrelevant; he is a brooding presence that demands no more nor less attention than the wheatfields of Kansas or its many broken residents to whom Javier Bardem’s priest character serves communion and offers grace. Malick famously casts prominent actors in his films then does not use most of if any of their footage. George Clooney had a couple of minutes at the end of The Thin Red Line, while John Travolta’s scene in that film was included but not credited. Rachel Weisz didn’t even make it to the final cut of To the Wonder, and Rachel McAdams has only a small, although significant, portion of the film devoted to her. Yet this all seems fitting. The Christianity Today article on the film commented that Malick’s disregard for the famous actors he casts is part and parcel of his view of humanity in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and in To The Wonder this takes on deep spiritual significance when the stars that are cast in the leading roles are given no more dignity – yet also no less – than the drug addicts and prisoners with whom Bardem mixes. Some of the film’s most tender moments come from its unknown and unnamed cameos. Fittingly, in the lead characters’ first wedding, taking place in a courtroom, (they are later married in a church), the witnesses to the marriage are prisoners, still handcuffed. Similar gravitas is granted to the prisoners who receive communion from Bardem through the slots in the doors of their prison cells later in the film.

To the Wonder is no easy Christian allegory, and many Christian audiences will shy away from it. This is first because Malick’s films are hard for anyone to watch without a strong degree of stamina or stubbornness. To the Wonder‘s hour and fifty-two minutes feels substantially longer because of the film’s often speechless slowness (the screenplay must surely only come in at a few pages, and much of what dialogue Malick includes is inaudible, as though the actual words themselves carry little significance). Also, some Christians would struggle no doubt with the way that faith is presented in the film. Most of the characters are torn between love for God and the love that “pulls [them] down to earth”, and love for God is often punctuated by long silences or a thirst for earthly satisfaction expressed in lust and adultery. Yet the film’s portrayal of sex is subtle, and its few moments of nudity are brief and tame. Although the film’s opening scenes might make it look like it is primarily concerned with the line between lust and love, sexual passion seems ultimately to be just one of the many expressions of how humans thirst for meaning and connection, and the film’s most powerful moment is not in any sexual or romantic exchange between characters but is instead the extended sequence towards the end in which we see a nun wash cutlery and Bardem serve communion on desolate streets in his neighbourhood, while in the background Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” plays and Bardem’s voice recites the prayer of St Patrick: “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me…” Thirst for God is everywhere in this film and trumps every other human thirst.

Though I can understand why, it’s a shame that more people have not seen To the Wonder, especially men and women who share Malick’s faith. There aren’t many more powerful evocations of divine love and grace going around at the moment than Malick’s films, and To the Wonder is one of the tenderest.

Uncovered Gems #4: François Mauriac

The list of Nobel laureates for Literature contains more French men than it does of any other demographic. That should not put you off reading Mauriac. But you may have trouble locating his work. His most famous novel, Thérèse Desqueyroux, is possibly the only one you’ll find in a bookshop today, due to the recent film adaptation starring Audrey Tatou. And it’s a good place to start with Mauriac. 

Better than good. Aside from the beauty of the writing and its complex vision of sin and grace, it’s an important novel for understanding him as an author. The character of Thérèse also features in a number of novels and stories, and even has a cameo in That Which Was Lost, so she clearly meant a lot to him.  

But there’s more to Mauriac than one novel, and you’ll need to go further afield to find out. It’s a strange fact that most Nobel laureates are not readily available in bookshops. But the internet was invented for solving issues like these. The majority of Mauriac’s novels are free downloads if you are willing to read facsimiles of old editions. And you should be, because not many Christian writes have tackled human sin and divine grace quite so skillfully as Mauriac. He’s sometimes called the French Graham Greene. There’s some truth to the comparison but I don’t think Mauriac liked the crime thriller quite like Greene did, and I find more living faith and less guilt in Mauriac. The closest thing I’ve found in English to his writing is Brideshead Revisited. Both show people living in complete disregard for God and discovering Him in completely unexpected ways nonetheless.

Some writers of faith get reprinted and sold at Christian bookshops, even when faith is not their main subject. Chesterton and Austen have both had fairly secular novels get the Christian marketing treatment. Not Mauriac, and I can see why. His faith is more overt than Austen’s but will make us more uncomfortable. (Perhaps Austen would too if we read her properly.) He doesn’t shy away from broken and messy realities, and even had to write a book called God and Mammon responding to André Gide (another French man who won the Nobel) who saw more kinship between himself and Mauriac than Mauriac was happy to accept. His work is gritty in a way that can’t sit next to Christian romance novels, but it should. Our shelves, and our faith, would be richer for it.

For me, the best thing he’s written is Viper’s Tangle, the story of a wealthy man dying with the knowledge that his whole family cares only about securing his wealth on his death. The viper’s tangle of the title is the complex rhizome of bitterness and resentment that has grown in his heart and mind all his adult life. I read it at the same time as Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illyich and the two have much in common. Both made me wonder why we don’t have more Christian writers who can dramatise the movements of grace like that. Sadly, in our attempts to keep Christian literature clean, we’ve kept the power of grace out. Christian fiction does not need to be an allegory of the gospel to paint the gospel in all the rich colours of God’s creation. If more of our writes today took the time to uncover Mauriac, we might produce more novels that could help untangle the vipers in our own hearts.

Uncovered Gems #3: “The Singer” by Calvin Miller

“How did you manage to make them cherish all this nothingness?” he asked the World Hater.

“I simply make them feel embarrassed to admit that they are incomplete. A man would rather close his eyes than see himself as your Father-Spirit does. I teach them to exalt their emptiness and thus preserve the dignity of man.”

“They need the dignity of God “

“You tell them that. I sell a cheaper product.”

When Dr Calvin Miller – pastor, author, poet and evangelist – died in 2012, Ed Stetzer said of him in Christianity Today that “Dr. Miller knew the importance of story as well [as evangelism]. A wonderful wordsmith, he would use the element of story in such a way that cold facts and dry doctrine came to life in ways rarely seen”. Poet Luci Shaw, one of the only really talented evangelical poets I’ve come across, said in his lifetime that “Calvin Miller sees with a single eye”, producing literature “full of light”. 

His prose poem The Singer may be a little too much of its time (the 1970s) to earn many readers easily today, yet, stumbling on it in the painfully small Literature section of my theological college’s library, I can see the qualities that Stetzer and Shaw praised.

An extended metaphor on the incarnation and mission of Jesus, The Singer boasts some of the most remarkably pithy lines and phrases that I’ve encountered in 20th-century creative religious writing outside Lewis. The Singer, tasked with singing of God’s good creation and calling a broken world to healing, regularly encounters the World Hater, Satan, whose counterfeit song recalls the two songs of Tolkien’s creation narrative in The Silmarillion. As the two figures of the Hater and the Singer travel to teach their different songs, not all are drawn into the purity and healing of the Singer’s eternal song. Even his mother warns against his singing the final verse “against the wall” of the Great Walled City of the Ancient King:

She cried.

“Leave off the final verse and not upon the wall.”

He kissed her.

“I can’t ignore the Father-Spirit’s call. So I will sing it there, and I will sing it all.”

At times, Miller’s allegory is heavy-handed, as allegory often is. And I wish deeply that evangelical authors could see the value in writing fiction that is not allegory. Yet the merit of Miller’s writing is the way it illuminates more than it retells. Not every detail of his story neatly correlates with a Biblical fact, and much of it is more poetic than doctrinal. But, as Stetzer observed, that’s his strength: seeing the value of story, and bringing back the poetry and power of the story in a way that theology often cannot do.

I for one will be looking for more of what Miller wrote in his rich and grace-driven lifetime.

Uncovered Gems #2: Ruth Pitter

Last week I posted a poem in honour of Christina Rossetti, who I declared one of the Anglican church’s greatest literary exports. Today, in this week’s uncovering, I want to share with you the work of a widely forgotten gem, the Anglican poet Ruth Pitter. I have my friend Nathanael to thank for this discovery, a poet who is sometimes known as “the woman who should have married C.S. Lewis” (and who is widely recognised as a better poet than he ever was). She was also the first woman to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, alongside winning a number of other prestigious awards. And yet few have heard of her today. In fact, I only discovered her because my friend printed out some articles on her for me – and I’m very glad he did.

Pitter is not, perhaps, the sort of poet who will win many fans easily this century. Her verse is determinedly traditional. Her first book of poems (just called First Poems) has more references to fairies than are wholly to my liking (though she means it in the Tolkien or Neil Gaiman sense, not in the vein of Tinkerbell). But most of all, she is hard to get into today because her work is largely unavailable. You have to be willing to do a fair amount of your own work to discover her, and what incentive do you have if you’ve never heard of her?

Well, the purpose of this post is simply to make some of her work a little more readily available to those who are interested. Because, apart from the obstacles in our 21st-century way, Pitter deserves our attention. Her work is delicate, in a way that is both beautiful and illusive. It refuses to be pinned down, yet it is filled so often with a clearly sacramental imagination. For Pitter, the world is fleeting but points to lasting things. Darkness hurts yet is transfigured by day. Relationships are imperfect yet transfixed by irreducible grace.

One of the best clues to Pitter’s work for me came from this interview, in which she distinguishes between two types of obscurity: the “noble” obscurity in which the poem illuminates something unseen or unknown, and the “slovenly” obscurity that detracts from meaning without adding to it. Pitter’s best work feels like crystal-clear water, of a kind that perfectly allows us to see the rich complexities of the rivers’ floor beneath.

Here are just a few snippets of her work. I’ll let them speak for themselves.

And to finish, here is one of her most joy-filled offerings that I’ve found.
The Plain Facts

See what a charming smile I bring,
Which no one can resist;
For I have found a wondrous thing –
The Fact that I exist.

And I have found another, which
I now proceed to tell.
The world is so sublimely rich
That you exist as well.

Fact One is lovely, so is Two,
But O the best is Three:
The Fact that I can smile at you,
And you can smile at me.

Avenue (Glenroy Lent #6)

What a discrepancy between
the joyful winging of birds
and the fear in men and women…

(Jean Vanier, The Broken Body)

And how one cricket starts
a neighbourhood symphony
in the grass of our roaming
near the concrete of our homing
in these streets and these footpaths
at a Friday-pink dusk

while the street in its silence
has houses and heartbeats
(through one window, hear dishes;
through another, hear Dickhead
be shouted – no reason);
and the moon in gauze sleeping
says, Here’s to a safe night,

watch over us, dusty
from the day, cool from night
watch our wandering, half-hoping,
half-asleep-on-the-job,
down these byways and laneways,
all these avenues of grace.

Resolution: No Clutter

Too fidgety the mind’s compass
(R.S. Thomas, “Adam Tempted”)

I pile books on books and
thought on thought. I pile
obligation onto guilt, and duty 
onto resignation. This
is panic in my breath and limbs
tingling with the pace of things.
There is no end, the wise teacher said,
to all flesh-weariness of thought.
I must find instead a small
pocket of my father’s grace;
I must breathe and breathe and breathe
in pinpoints where His kindness rests.
Not absent, Lord – You have never been
on holiday; You, O God, don’t sleep.
Yet in Your weekly scheme is space;
all Your bookshelves mouth Your peace.
Not absent, Lord. It is I who have been
too busy with my piles and piles
of nothing. You are everything.

Welcome, God’s Year

For many, 2016 will be a year that few will miss or wish to repeat. It was the year of Brexit and Trump, of many beloved public figures dying, and seemingly also a year of much personal hardship for many people. It was certainly the case for my wife and I this year. Yet I’m determined not to go down the path of declaring it an annus horribilis – not because I enjoyed the year, not because I would like to live it again, but because God’s grace is never absent, in any year, and His mercies are found everywhere.

Less significantly, 2016 was the year that I began to learn Danish. And while this might seem like nothing more than a curious idea of what constitutes a fun hobby, it meant that I was introduced to the poetry and hymns of the 19th century Danish pastor and writer N.F.S. Grundtvig – first via the music of Danish “pastoral folk band” Kloster (listen to their album “Ni Salmer Og En Aftensang” for some beautiful versions of hymns by Grundtvig and others, including Hans Christian Anderson). And, as I have been learning the language, I have been attempting also to translate some of Grundtvig’s lyrics into English.

Here, as a somewhat shoddy offering for the new year, is my rendering of his hymn, “Vær velkommen, Herrens år” (literally “Be welcome, the Lord’s Year”, original Danish text available here). It’s technically an Advent hymn, but looks at Advent as the beginning of the liturgical year, and charts how God’s grace is seen at every key moment of the Church Year. May it be something of a reminder to us that God is never absent from a  year and that no year can be an annus horribilis when we trace the workings of His grace through each day.

Welcome, God’s year,
And be welcome here.
On Christmas night, when the Lord was born,
A light came forth at the darkest dawn,
So welcome, new year. Welcome here.

Welcome, God’s year,
And be welcome here.
On Easter Morning, when the Lord was raised,
The Tree of Life took root in the grave,
So welcome, new year. Welcome here.

Welcome, God’s year,
And be welcome here.
On Pentecost Day, when God’s Spirit came down to us,
Then down came His power, into our weaknesses,
So welcome, new year. Welcome here.

Welcome, God’s year,
And be welcome here.
This now is God’s year, filled up with God’s favour,
New gladness is waiting in each day of God here,
So welcome, new year. Welcome here.